The Devil is in the Detail
by Matt Harris
‘The intelligence of the eye expects a certain degree of imperfection and environmental noise. Where this balance is upset, realism and believability suffers. retouching’
When it comes to shooting, product photography is relatively straightforward. When working with products the lighting is controlled, cameras can be freely positioned, and the stationary subject is near. But after my first few days in the studio, I began to appreciate the extra details that retouching bring to a final product.
The relationship between camera, product, lighting and environment forms the foundation of a product shot. The intelligence of the eye expects a certain degree of imperfection and environmental noise. Where this balance is upset, realism and believability suffers.
That’s why CGI – for all its benefits – leaves you with a strange feeling when you see it. This is because neither the camera, the subject, nor its environment are real, leaving the interplay between familiar elements absent. After all, reflections and imperfections are necessary ingredients when we want to generate realism and fool the eye. This is where retouching comes in.
‘Hatching’ a KIA Cerato
I was recently given a fun and challenging brief that radically changed how I harness detail when editing realistic-looking images.
Our brief was to change a Kia Cerato sedan into a hatchback model. With no actual car available in Australia to use for photographic reference, we were dependent on a 3D rendering platform provided by KIA Motors.
While not ideal, these renders were serviceable — properly lit and coloured, and complete with authentic textures and materials, they took us a long way towards solving the problem. So long as the angles and focal length of the scenes and CG camera matched the image, a solution was feasible.
Despite a decent approximation, the image still suffered from tell-tale flaws that commonly undermine the believability of CGI. For example, the tyres appear smooth, the chrome and badges lack reflections, and lights and highlights are incongruous with natural lighting. When the CGI render is juxtaposed with the base image I want to modify, these flaws are magnified tenfold.
Retouching: the Solution
To facilitate a subtle transition between the CG render and the base image, I feathered the edges of the new part with a soft-brush eraser.
The real trick was to enhance the modal fit of the side panel. To this end I set about restoring some of the reflections from the original body shape to sell the illusion. When applied with subtlety, such details help convince the viewer that the introduced elements were always part of the whole.
‘The whole is more than the sum of its parts’
Realism is the product of natural imperfections working in harmony. The balance between environmental reflections, the subject, and the nuances of what the camera captures are essential to lifelike imagery.
Technical correctness will not work. In retouching, it is the paradox of imperfection that creates the illusion of perfection.
This is why we use retouching, to carefully set about including fake environmental reflections, chromatic aberrations, added mechanical noise to match the image grain. With this, forced blurring and other imperfections will come together to give you a believable image.
Angels and Devils in the Detail
Resisting the too-slick finish, the final product is actually enhanced by its reflections and imperfections. While naturally invisible upon first glance, closer inspection will reveal detilas that enhance realism. Reflections of the wing mirror in the paint, the stickers in the windshield and the scraping of the undercarriage, are all preserved to make CGI look as if it was part of a natural scene.
Such attention to detail provides the fidelity that sets Studio Nero’s work apart, generating a portfolio and professional legacy that we are truly proud of.
Because in image editing and design, the devil is in the detail, and angels live in imperfection.